Cats review – will haunt viewers for generations

No amount of A-list stars can save Tom Hooper’s dire Lloyd Webber adaptation from being a career low for all involved

When asked at the world premiere of Cats on Monday if he was happy with how the film looked, director Tom Hooper replied wearily that he had finished it “at 8am the previous day”. Yet one wonders if more time spent perfecting the state-of-the-art digital fur technology in his baffling adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash-hit stage musical would have helped.

The original musical, based on TS Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, is widely acknowledged as a plotless spectacle. That Hooper, who made 2012’s Oscar-winning Les Misérables, felt the story would lend itself to a feature film was optimistic at best. In a neon-lit junkyard somewhere in London’s West End, abandoned white kitten Victoria (the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward) finds herself among a community of “jellicle cats” competing for the chance to ascend to the heaviside layer, aka cat heaven, where they will be reborn. Each cat must prove themselves by singing a song: one lucky winner is chosen by Judi Dench’s gender-flipped Old Deuteronomy (who has fur, but also, illogically, wears a fur coat). Much like season three of American Idol, there are tears, VIP guests and a thankless performance from the otherwise talented Jennifer Hudson.

With no narrative scaffolding in place, the film relies on Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn’s songs. Styled in a Prince-style purple coat, pop star Jason Derulo brings some sexual energy to Rum Tum Tugger (those familiar with Derulo’s signature song intro will be disappointed to discover that he does not begin by announcing his own name). Taylor Swift’s bratty, libidinous Bombalurina is better – stomping around in high heels, shimmying her furry breasts and purring “Macavity the mystery cat” with a faux-British accent. Swift is the only cast member who seems to be having fun, perhaps because she only appears in the film for approximately 10 minutes.

For most of the others involved, it’s a clear career low. Rebel Wilson’s number involves a conga line of dancing cockroaches, while James Corden’s overweight tabby, Bustopher Jones, rolls around in an actual pile of litter. One wonders if the actors are aware of what they’ve gotten themselves into. There’s something undignified about watching Ian McKellen (who plays Gus the Theatre Cat) meowing and lapping a bowl of milk in his bare feet; Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella is ugly-crying in every one of her scenes; and when Rum Tum Tugger grimaces direct to camera, it feels like Derulo is breaking the fourth wall.

The camera’s canted angles and shaky closeups convulse with feeling that the actors can’t seem to summon. Ensemble dance sequences convey neither emotion nor information (except that the felines each have 10 fully articulated human toes). The film is rated U, but many of its uncanny images are sure to haunt viewers for generations.

Everything feels off, from the scale of the purpose-built set (which makes the cats look more like Borrowers) to the erratic interpretations of its musical numbers. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, in which mischievous cats trash a human house, is joyless and devoid of anarchy. Hudson’s 11th-hour ballad, Memory, feels like a desperate, last-ditch grasp towards something resembling pathos.

Regarding cats or humans, Hooper, it seems, has nothing to say. This is middlebrow film-making at its most hubristic; too inelegant to coast on spectacle alone, it’s not subversive enough to be considered truly camp either. I expect the film’s grab-bag celebrity cast and Christmas release date will secure its box-office success. The stage is on fire, but the show must go on.


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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